New Utopias

How Shall We Then Live?

Welcome to New Utopias

Traditional concert life has resumed post pandemic, but has
changed remarkably, perhaps for ever. My own composer website redirected for a while to this blog 
New Utopias; here I would still like to invite contributors.

This site is intended as a rhetorical and philosophical discourse on how we have lived to date, and how we are to live in the future.

There are no strict guidelines, other than to say that the normal rules of a civil world society apply. Contributions will be read before being posted (go to "contact" below), but no real need to moderate is expected. Comment function is not enabled; the blog is meant as food for thought.


Oratorio of Hope

The Impact of Art on Community 

South London is a tough place to live. And Croydon demands from its residents – and its visitors of course, too – a heightened need to be streetwise. Savvy, in a word. First up, a potted history of the place: Croydon is first mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086, is by the Middle Ages a market town, and with the advent of the railways during the 19thcentury already a commuter town. In the 20th century it expands into a large industrial area and sees during the 1950s a massive redevelopment that is as drastic as it is foolhardy. Swathes of medieaval buildings are torn down only to be replaced by high rise office blocks, shopping precincts and malls such as the Whitgift Centre. The heart of a thronging conurbation has been ripped out. The local population is left to get on with things on its own. The result by the early 21st century is the highest knife crime rate in London. 
Come the year 2023, and Croydon is the London Borough of Culture (LBoC). A grant to the tune of £1.35m is awarded to Croydon Borough by the GLA (Greater London Authority), the office of the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan. The launch event – and a “flagship” project – is the “Oratorio of Hope”, an LBoC commission via Croydon Music and Arts for the London Mozart Players (LMP), an ensemble that performs each season in Croydon's best concert space, the Fairfield Halls. The work is funded to £100,000 and comprises eight movements, each of which features particular Croydon-based artists such as Silvastone or performing groups like the theatre company Talawa. They work with three “collaborative composers” – Fiona Brice, Jeff Moore, and Sarah Freestone – who, in turn, allow “performable music” to be created. Add in some local dance companies, song lyrics written by members of the Crisis Croydon choir, and a mass children’s chorus singing about hope for the future, along with films about the creation of the oratorio and life in Croydon, and the result is a heady mix no longer expressed just through classical music, but a multi-media celebration of Croydon and everything that makes Croydon, Croydon. For better or for worse. 
So much for the theory. To understand what happens in practice it is necessary to know two things: First, that local boy made good, the British-American composer Tarik O’Regan, is entrusted by LMP not only to deliver a short overture to the Oratorio of Hope, but also to invent a cogent musical theme, an idée fixe as it were, that is to run like a thread through the warp and weft of the entire oratorio. The demiurgic trio that is Brice, Moore and Freestone is in turn called upon to lead workshops with Croydon arts groups, whose discrete contributions must be seen as a “series of team-written variations” on O’Regan’s theme, to quote Richard Morrison in his review in The Times following the premiere; secondly, that Shaniqua Benjamin, a poet, writer, creative workshop facilitator, and Croydon’s first Poet Laureate, who uses her passion to “make a difference and empower young people through creativity, conversation and writing”, is also assigned a task by LMP, to pen a poem to be set to music and sung by a chorus. 
The entire process is best described by one of the so-called collaborative composers, Fiona Brice. She relates how, working together with Silvastone (a renowned UK based producer/singer whose songs are a creative hybrid of influences from his West African heritage) and Subrang Arts (an Indian classical dance company based in Croydon), she allows music to be assembled that is based on the “fixed idea” by O’Regan and Benjamin's new text. Her role remains that of an arranger. 
Freestone meets up with Silvastone. The general brief is for an oratorio movement that celebrates freedom. The specific intention is to build a rough demo using Tarik O'Regan's theme and Benjamin's text. But as Silvastone explains, any creative process remains unpredictable, and what emerges is his own musical response to the motto of feeling unbounded. He decides, too, he would rather write his own words. After the encounter, they continue to exchange ideas remotely, the result a new song called "There's a Way". Silvastone then produces the final backing track while Freestone orchestrates this material. The singer/songwriter taps into his personal experience of coming from Sierra Leone to Croydon, making a life as an independent musician, and navigating challenges along the way. The refrain of the song is "Where There's a Will, There's a Way", which turns out to be recurring advice given to him by his late father when growing up in West Africa. 
As for working with Subrang Arts, Freestone is given sheet music and feels that her first step into the dance world is somehow to put across the contents of the pages to the company. Communication remains remote: she videos herself playing through the theme at the piano and records mp3 files, the material destined for her collaborative group. Under her auspices the second movement, seven minutes in duration, comes into being. During a workshop this musical kernel is developed. Now, Indian classical music is largely an improvised medium and the musicians of Subrang Arts must somehow feel free to flex in compositional terms their wings yet remain harnessed to a preordained musical form. The key to musical success in this case is to use a “raga”. So let me digress a tad . . .
Melodies in Indian music are classified by an ancient system known as “ragas”. These are collections of pitches, ones which resemble a scale or mode in Western music. But each raga is defined not only by the pitch steps themselves, but also by prescriptive rules for using them, e.g. how players are to ascend a scale or descend it during an improvisation. Moreover, the word “raga” in Sanskrit means colour, be it chromatic or emotional, and hence is also cognate with mood. Ragas in Indian classical music originate as part of ancient dance drama recitals in which a story is told, the main idea being that melodies stemming from each raga aid the emotions and act as vehicles for the actors, ones on which they can project their emotions. Brice chooses a raga the steps of which correspond well to the musical motto provided by O’Regan, based as it is on a series of rising perfect fourth intervals.
At both a societal and musical level then, the “Oratorio of Hope” brings people together. A collaborative composer like Fiona Brice is seen as an enabler, one who inculcates a sense of respect and cooperation in participating artists and who engenders joint creativity. By exploring such diverse genres of music – hers is indeed a broad palette – she manages simultaneously to be experimental and to combine cultural backgrounds into a synergistic fertile output. The relationships with figures such as Lata Desai (Producer Subrang Arts) and Saleel Tamba (tabla) e.g., are symbiotic. (Brice subsequently notates the workshop results and scores these for orchestra.) Desai describes Croydon as a “vibrant place to live and work”, opining that the big takeaway for the audience is a newfound enthusiasm for both Western and Indian classical music. For her part, Brice adds how this would simply “be a great thing”.
In conversation with Sarah Freestone, who is responsible for three of the eight movements that comprise the Oratorio of Hope, it is abundantly clear how once more the community is involved. For one movement, “All We Are”, she works with pupils from Riddlesdown Collegiate, holding a number of workshops to “generate material”. All musical ideas come from the young musicians. Every theme, each idea for instrumentation, along with overall musical form can be traced back to these players. She captures the material by voice memo on her smartphone, or jots down melodies and rhythms in MS, going on to orchestrate these, again first in MS then in Sibelius. Welcome news. For Freestone wishes to use every idea the players have. As we chat, the word “ostinato” crops up from time to time; she clearly sets great store that musical form is understood as new material is generated, and how this must then be communicated to the audience. She shuns the “I word” – improvisation –, preferring to use the “G word”: generation. Well to the fore is the word “cell”, and how to write a good tune in this, an educational context. Her vocabulary is as interesting as it is innovative. We are to avoid a “noodle” – a kind of endless mobius strip of a tune, as well as “waffle”, which she understands as simply blathering on with no clear melodic aim, i.e. a base on which to land.
Pupils studying art as well as music take part, and the impact of art on community takes centre stage. Some of the ideas are quite visual she notes. In a video released by the school it becomes patently obvious how youngsters make sense of the world through art and then feel able to address society at large. The workshops are safe spaces in which they can identify with their own culture. These musicians are from Croydon and are proud to be from Croydon, regardless of their different ethnicities, or alternate religious beliefs. They have respect for each other, and hope others will want to “come to Croydon to experience the richness that is there”.
In another movement, “The One I See”, dance is the chosen main medium of expression. And Freestone works with the company Agudo Dance. There is but one dancer, Kenny Wing Tao Ho. This was the decision of the choreographer, Jose Agudo, founder of the ensemble, who wishes to concentrate our attention on a lone figure in motion. He sends the collaborative composer a video, and she advises on how the music should come into being. This is a “story of inner strength and empowerment” aimed at “improving one’s life and the lives of others”, he says. At the premiere in the Fairfield Halls, some of the LMP players stand in a circle around the dancer, while the remains of the full orchestra remain in situ, this to encourage the feeling that the music is not a mere backing track.
In her third movement for the oratorio, Freestone collaborates with the Crisis Skylight Croydon choir. Now, Crisis is a centre in Croydon where individuals feeling the stress and strain of life in the city can access education, get help when needing to interact with local government bureaucracy, and surmount language issues. Here, the homeless or those at risk of homelessness, can get a hot shower and a hot cup of tea. Society can be cold, just like the weather. The centre has founded a small choir, but it turns out tough for singers to commit every week, as their lives can change quickly and drastically. Sarah Freestone does not give up lightly, and she manages to retain numbers from the outset to the first performance.
In a process like the one employed at Riddlesdown, the singers from Crisis, who wish to speak and be heard, are given a voice. It is she who gives them this voice and a chance to be listened to. For these are, she claims, “quite eloquent people” who are capable of generating (the “G word” again) on paper the “lyrics to be used and a melody to be sung”. For it is the singers who create their own words and music. Finally, she selects a final most singable version of the tune and provides the group with a brass and percussion backing track, but just as a midi track rehearsal guide. Her orchestration for this movement is quintessentially brass, like an English brass band. At the premiere the Crisis Skylight choir teams up with Croydon Voices Community Choir – a canny move. Safety in numbers. And, we hope, in society as a whole.
We reach the grand finale. Jeff Moore, the last of the triumvirate of collaborative composers, supplies by way of his seventh movement “Faces and Places” the last one of the Oratorio of Hope, “For Us and We”. He describes it as “a celebration of Croydon becoming London’s borough of culture in 2023”. As for the workshop environment, he thinks it best to “just get on with it” if one is “dealing with an orchestra”. Let them play, don't talk too much, as it were. He divides the young players at his disposal into two groups: the “dominants” and the “subdominants”, according to their instrumental training bis dato, and the concomitant level reached. A cunning plan. We discuss the ins and outs of getting the best out of those still at school and quickly agree that the avowed aim must be to have simple (not simplistic, or worse still, simple minded) music done well as opposed to complex music rendered badly. For “simple” one could read “direct”. These players need to feel secure on stage and have to know what they are being called upon to do; and it is their very security that is to come across to the audience in the concert hall.
According to the Develop Croydon Forum – an ostensibly not-for-profit community interest company comprising “businesses that collectively work together to promote Croydon as a location to invest, work and live” –, over 250 pupils from schools across the borough, musicians from Subrang Arts (a voluntary organisation dedicated to the promotion and development of Asian Art and Culture), players from Croydon Music & Arts (CMA) ensembles, along with a full orchestra that is the London Mozart Players and a mass children’s chorus “create and perform” this “spectacular finale”. Moore recounts how some audience members approach him right after the premiere, saying just how “vibrant a place Croydon is”, and that an evening like this makes one actually “want to live in the borough”.
To understand the sentiments of what Jeff Moore sees more as “an opening ceremony akin to that of the Olympic Games” than a fully fledged composition per se, one needs to read and ponder on the eponymous poem he was given and upon which his music rests: “For Us and We”, penned by Croydon’s very own Poet Laureate, Shaniqua Benjamin. We reproduce the lyrics by kind permission.
For you and me, for us and we. For who we are and who that we can be. Rise up to celebrate all we are, And sing with voices always to be free. Step into my kind of beautiful. We glimpse the world each day. For this is Croydon, the one I see, We need, for you and me, for us and we. For you and me, for us and we. For who we are and who that we can be. Rise up to celebrate all we are, And sing with voices always to be free. Step into my kind of beautiful. We glimpse the world each day. For this is Croydon, the one I see, We need, for you and me, for us and we! Celebrate our neighbourhood! Proud to call it home. For this is Croydon, the one I see, We need, for you and me, for us and we! This is Croydon, for you and me, for us and we! This is Croydon, for you and me, for us and we! This is Croydon, for you and me, for us and we! This is Croydon, for you and me, And this is Croydon, for us and we, For you and me and us! For us and we!

A New Biennale

We are, sadly and frustratingly, still in the midst of the pandemic. Nevertheless -- such a hopeful word -- October sees the launch of a new musical initiative: the 1st HARZ FIRE Biennale, Sangerhausen.
Special guests are Trinity Boys Choir (London), Babett Niclas (Harp), Laura Maeke (Violin), and Daniel Mathieson (Organ).
Also appearing are the youth choirs Voces Juvenales (Sangerhausen) and Cantatum (Roßleben).
Following a series of events in the Harz Region, the final concert takes place on Saturday 8 October 2022 in the churches of St Ulrici and St Jacobi Sangerhausen.

The programme is entitled VOICES OF FIRE, and presents works by Renaissance composers Thomas Tallis, William Byrd and Robert Whyte, two well known choral pieces by Benjamin Britten, as well as music of our own times, including pieces by Judith Weir and Ben Parry, as well as some of my own works scored for chorus and solo harp, and chorus and solo violin.


Saved by the sea, as
Feathered stalks of rice emerge,
For the tide has turned.
The haiku references the Spanish chef Ángel León, known as "el Chef del Mar", and who is currently involved in a project to explore the culinary uses of Eelgrass, or Zostera marina.


Our forests silent,
Algal bloom our oceans green;   
The safety net shrinks.
The text references a recent UN report that warns one million species are in danger of extinction. Insects no longer populate forested areas.Toxic algae turn waters to slime and poison entire fish stocks.   

The Milkmaid and Her Pail

Our car has been in mothballs for months. So it was something of a novelty to sit behind the wheel once again. What struck me was the number of electric vehicles (EVs) now on the road here in Germany. My thoughts turned to carbon emissions from these cars. Does a shift to batteries make them entirely green? Well, not at first it seems.
Although EVs when actually on the road have a net-negative impact on carbon emissions, their production remains quite carbon intensive. The manufacturing process of an electric car battery weighing more than 500kg leads to the emission of ca. 70% more CO2 than during that of a conventional vehicle. Added to which, these new cars need to be driven for some 50,000km before a lifetime emission is lower than that of a conventional one.
There is a nice and commonly used expression in German: "eine Milkmädchenrechnung". It is derived from the tale by Aesop "The Milkmaid and Her Pail". It recounts how a milkmaid had been out to milk the cows and was returning from the field with the shining milk pail balanced nicely on her head. As she walked along, her pretty head was busy with plans for the days to come. We know how the story ended. The numbers on the bill (= Rechnung) did not add up.  
More anon . . .

Three Haikus

As deaths outstrip births,
Lower the new dead, but first
Raise that sprouting corpse.
This new roof on a
Millennium of oaks, for
The faith of the few.
Orange the night sky,
The soul escapes the body
As the iron melts.
The first Haiku pertains to the rates of births and deaths in Brazil during the Corona pandemic as of early April 2021, and the fact that bodies were being exhumed to make place for new cadavers. The reference to the "sprouting corpse" is to T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land". The second Haiku references the restoration of Notre Dame in Paris, which calls for one thousand ancient oak trees to be felled. As for the third, it tells the story of Covid deaths in India in late April 2021, acknowledging the Hindu belief that cremation frees the spirit from the human form and how the heat of the grills used deforms the metal.    

Two Haikus

The Amazon gasps 
As scofflaws fell the verdant 
Cathedrals of green
Scorched brown hills of logs. 
Trees topple and surrender
To flame and iron.
The first haiku references the Covid-19 emergency in Manaus, a jungle-flanked city reachable only by plane or boat, where hospitals ran out of oxygen. The second describes a Dantesque scenario, as pristine Amazon rain forest is cleared for new settlements, leading to an even greater proximity between humans and animals.

The Cave of Trophonius

Our lives have been transformed since the SARS-CoV-2 virus took centre stage and enormous repercussions have already been felt throughout urban life. But this is a unique chance for urban architects to shape a new future for cities around the world. The sweeping changes we have experienced across social, economic and political spheres would have been considered unthinkable about one year ago. The very fabric of society has changed as so many of us experience social isolation and just what it means to study or work from home. Following astutely an unprecedented daily scientific briefing by governments worldwide just adds to the stress. Admittedly, many emergency measures will be scaled back as the infection curves flatten, but others will surely remain in place. Period.
Many city dwellers who can afford to do so have fled larger conurbations for the countryside in an attempt to maintain social distancing. In London an estimated 250,000 people have left; that is almost 3% of the capital’s population. Now, although various prophylactic measures introduced in lockdowns the world over have challenged the very essence of city life, these open the way for to realise aspirations held by urban designers and planners. In normal times, a public space is there to facilitate congregation; in normal times we espouse the importance of public transport; and in normal times local high streets are championed as vibrant marketplaces. The crisis has rapidly hastened the online migration of retail and left the future of high streets distinctly uncertain.
We are at a tipping point, and must seize this opportunity to catalyse positive change in our built environment. Here in Germany, inner cities are facing “a triple tsunami” that means “structural change in retail, digitalisation and the corona pandemic”, says Boris Hedde, Head of the Cologne Institute for Retail Research. And the fashion industry in particular is experiencing a massive rupture. It might sound callous to note that this might bring positive outcomes for “Lebensraum”, loosely translatable as our habitat in the built environment. Like many British cites, it is hard to know in which high street one is actually standing: the shops are almost entirely chain stores. We know the culprits, and there is no need to list them here. In a nutshell: many high street brands are struggling. Some plan to close around half of their stores nationwide as part of restructuring efforts.
Many high street stores were already struggling before the pandemic, having faced considerable pressure from online retail and fast-fashion outlets. It is as if the coronavirus hit those units with pre-existing conditions, so to speak. Many department stores find themselves empty, and the decline of the city centre now poses serious problems. Although history demonstrates just how hard it is to lend old premises a new use, they surely still hold a certain kind of attraction for new tenants.
So, as the world continues to move online, we are afforded the opportunity, nay luxury, to turn previously traffic-jammed thoroughfares into green and pleasant garden streets.
More in another article.











Land is rent from sea;
The beach cedes each red mien from
Stiff black planted limbs.
The poem references the tribute to COVID-19 victims in Brazil as, in early August 2020, fatalities passed the 100,000 mark, and the nongovernmental group Rio de Paz placed 100 black wooden crosses in the sand of the famed Copacabana beach and released 1,000 red balloons into the sky.